CATEGORY: Book Review

Review: “True, False, None of the Above” by Marjorie Maddox

reviewed by David Craig

Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016. ISBN: 9781498239226. Paperback. 104 pp.

In The Life of an American Poet James Atlas tells us that Delmore Schwartz was, at Harvard in the 40s, “one of the earliest beneficiaries of a policy­­–one that continues to this day–of hiring writers to teach English composition.” It’s a move that has long benefitted everyone involved. The monolith has gotten cheap labor; the poet, his or her meager bread initially, a foot in the academic door (a door which has, thankfully, widened since that time with the development of so many creative writing courses); and the students have gotten access to sensibilities which intimately understand how important language, poetry, is.

Review: “A Cut-and-Paste Country” by Kathleen Hart

reviewed by Christine H. Boldt

Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 2016. ISBN:9780996930505.
Paperback. 98 pp. Inaugural winner of the Jacapone da Todi Poetry Prize.

How does a person create a life? The characters in Kathleen Hart’s poetry collection, A Cut-and-Paste Country, do just that: the rabbi who glues together pictures of fine art snipped from magazines, and thus honors his old country parents who, as seamstress and tinsmith, sewed and soldered lives for themselves; the man who mounts his collection of cartes de visite and yearns to catch the essence of his lost father; the artist who can no longer paint the natural landscapes he loves, but directs others to build a house whose windows frame scenes he might have painted; another whose paintings are composites of all he has seen and cherished as he travels about his city. All the historical figures whose stories Hart relates are dedicated to blending their strengths, their obsessions, and their failures into monuments they hope will preserve, for a while, what time will ultimately destroy.

Each poem that treats an historic figure has also been constructed by the author from a variety of sources, another echo of “cut-and-paste.” In turn, the composite nature of the book mirrors both the activities of the characters in individual poems, and those of the author’s persona, who appears, now and again, struggling to patch her way to wholeness as she emulates, or at least considers, the behaviors she highlights in her characters.  Hart tells us that reaching integrity requires tearing one’s self down, reinventing that self, and trying yet again. And scoundrels, she discovers, can do this just as well as people of principle. The author acknowledges that destiny may have a hand in undoing the most marvelously constructed plans. But often there are moments of grace granted to those who are not even enough in tune with their lives to ask for them.

Keeping so many themes going at once—sincere folk and villains, the shortcomings of historical figures and personal sorrows, the presence and absence of grace, the upbeat and the desperate—is no easy task, yet Hart skillfully handles this balancing act. Character-driven poems and personal reflections alternate in a fluid pattern as if in conversation with each other, creating an energy that keeps the reader moving forward through the collection. At the same time, the recurrence of such visual imagery as blowing blossoms and rattling freight cars that appear against many different horizons, give this book the feeling of a patchwork quilt, within which a piece of someone’s favorite work shirt might appear in one square after another.

Watching Hart’s characters reach and fail, fumble and mend, and observing as the author cuts and pastes versions of herself that echo the efforts of those whose lives she details, readers may find it is difficult to resist inquiry into their own attempts with scissors and glue. Where do we draw the lines between dedication and obsession? Do we measure our successes in effort expended, or production accomplished? Is the patched thing we make of ourselves worthy of praise? Will depression or financial ruin put an end to us? Or will we cobble ourselves together, yet again? And how?

Hart does not leave us without answers. In some of her most joyous poems there are clues to what keeps her characters, and her own persona, recreating their lives: sun flowers in a field, “a sense of honor and proportion,” brief moments when we seem to be operating in harmony with the world, others when we are able to “see the individual thing and its structure at the same time.” Though the author acknowledges that “hearts are designed to dissolve,” that “one snowfall collapses into another,” still she celebrates the perseverance of the denizens of her patched-together country.

Some of these poems, while perfectly at home in the world Hart has created, could stand by themselves as joyous affirmations. Two of my favorites are “The Unreliable Witness,” which gently tweaks the poems of William Carlos Williams, and “Also Celebrate,” which manages to be an ecstatic salute both to everyday miracles and to the circle of life.

Hart’s book will charm anyone who has stumbled and gotten up in the course of constructing his or her life, but will be of special interest to Windhover readers because of the framework in which the author has carefully placed it. The very first citizen of A Cut-and-Paste Country whom Hart describes is an architect seeking to conform his life and his buildings, cobbled together though they may be, to Psalm 104, which he has by heart. The Psalms, the architect knows, are

                                                                    . . . generous
enough for additions and deletions or revisions and
can adapt to any language or tempo, being propelled,
as they are by design which varies and repeats,
a design which is carried out through breath,
which is spirit.

The book ends with the story of another re-inventor of self, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe whose journey, from balloon-designer, to explorer, to banker, to creator of an ice machine, illustrates the typically restless energy of Hart’s characters. By the end of his poem, he acknowledges that his inventions all arise from a vision he had at the very beginning of his life, and that “his help [is] from the Lord.” Here Hart affirms the integrity with which we all cut and paste, and declares that we are not alone in our endeavor.

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CHRISTINE H. BOLDT is a retired librarian who has lived in Central Texas for more than thirty years. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy during the 1970s. Christine has published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother. Her poetry has appeared in The Christian Century, Windhover, The Texas Poetry Calendar, and The Enigmatist. Her prize-winning poems are included in The Poetry Society of Texas Book of the Year (2015) and National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ Encore (2016).

Review: “Night Driving” by Addie Zierman

reviewed by Nathaniel L. Hansen, editor of Windhover

New York: Convergent, 2016. 240 pp. ISBN: 1601425473

In the fall of 2013, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Addie Zierman’s first book, When We Were on Fire. (You can read that review here, if you’re interested.) It was a book I read in less than a week–I was captivated not only by her story but also by her depictions of ’90s American Evangelicalism.

Then last summer I taught When We Were on Fire in a Religion & Literature course. My students, even those who didn’t grow up in this type of culture, were captivated by her story. When she graciously agreed to Skype with my class on the last day we were discussing the book, my students were starstruck.

Both times reading that book, I found myself deeply moved. It stirred much in me. So of course when I learned of the upcoming release of her second book, I was excited to read an advanced copy.

Night Driving focuses on a much narrow time frame, more specifically February of 2014. The book recounts a trip she took with her two boys, driving to Florida and back, and as in some travel narratives, the book is organized around chapters dedicated to a specific day or days. The dates and the accompanying photographs are the (pardon the pun) framing devices to each chapter. (In her first book,  if you’re not aware, each chapter began with a Christian cliché, followed by a short definition.)

In Night Driving, Zierman showcases a voice that is more mature, more confident. Not that the first book was rough, but Night Driving possesses a polish and heightened level of technique. At the sentence level, the prose is more compelling,  more finely crafted. There is even more imagery and detail to savor, especially in her depictions of the family minivan, the chariot that whisks her to the warmth and drags her to the cold.

Noticeably absent in Night Driving are the extended passages of second-person point-of-view. While they worked effectively in When We Were on Fire, their rare occurrence in Night Driving adds power to the recurring “I.” There’s less of an attempt to “put the reader in the scene” via the “you” except for important moments. Such a decision allows for more substantial development and presence of her voice.

The episodic nature of the book, focused as it is on the travel to and from Florida, also triggers reminiscences as Zierman connects and reconnects with individuals along the way, and in this journey there is again a wrestling with questions of faith and Christianity.  In depicting these struggles, Zierman (again) provides an honest portrayal of herself and the situations, avoiding the temptation to sugarcoat or oversimplify complexity and paradox. Yet even in her challenges there are unexpected moments of grace, such as at the beach on their final morning in Florida.

With its reminiscences and flashbacks, Night Driving is truly a sequel to When We Were on Fire–there’s a continuity between the two books. I can only wonder (and wait) for what she will write next. Regardless of when it is released, I’m sure I will (again) read it in less than a week.

Review: On Pentameter and “Citizen”

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. 160 pp. ISBN: 1555976905

Reviewed by Timothy E.G. Bartel (Windhover contributor 2015)

I am a believer in iambic pentameter, that ancient meter with a pronounced limp that has not stumbled since the Greeks were new. I was reminded of this recently when I picked up Milton’s Paradise Regained, having avoided it since sophomore year of college for all the usual reasons—it seemed a minor work of a poet of off-putting puritanical theology, married more to the monotony of his blank verse than the wives he neglected.

I still find Milton’s theology and biography off-putting, but his pentameter is sublime. It is a visceral tutorial in the craft of line-making, in the rhythmic nature of the English tongue. We often say these things about Shakespeare, but it is the blank verse poets in the centuries after Shakespeare—Bradstreet and Dryden and Wheatley and Milton most of all—who show how much there was still to be done with pentameter after the last lines of the Tempest had been penned and performed. And just when it looked like the Victorians had squeezed the last ounce of aristocratic worth out of the meter, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens showed its cultural buoyancy in lines of blank verse so effortlessly contemporary that they made the free verse of Eliot and Marianne Moore seem somehow the less demotic of the two modernist linguistic projects.

Why this broad and somewhat reckless rehashing of iambic history from Shakespeare to the moderns? Well, I’ve been missing those old iambs in contemporary poetry, especially that which is hailed as the cutting edge of poetry today. It seems to me that what this poetry often lacks is the wedding of the craft of metrics to the subjects of urgent concern that many a praised poem addresses.

Case in point is Claudia Rankine’s much lauded Citizen (Graywolf 2014) an often harrowing series of prose poems and visual art that explores the contemporary black American experience. All but a couple of these poems are prose poems, and it is telling that the book is sometimes shelved with essays instead of poetry (indeed, it was nominated for the National Book Award in both the categories of criticism and poetry—the latter of which it won). When, in the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope and Phillis Wheatley wanted to write essays about topics of contemporary urgency, they wrote them in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. Today, when one of our finest poets wants to write of the same topics, she writes poems in the form of prose paragraphs. What does this say about our formal assumptions?

As prose goes, Rankine’s throughout Citizen is seldom less than splendid. Her essay-length treatment of Serena Williams and the politics of professional tennis is especially poignant, and ranks with David Foster Wallace’s “Both Flesh and Not” as sports writing raised to the highest levels of humanist prose. Rankine’s short prose poems too bite and cause unease. Many of them are written second-person perspective, implicating the reader in the trauma. In one such passage, the speaker visits the house of a trauma counselor for an appointment: “At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?”

In passage after passage, Rankine addresses such urgent and deep seated problems in our culture that it seems a shame to nitpick about metrics. But nitpick I will. The problem, as I see it, with giving it the National Book Award in poetry to a book that is effectively a book of creative nonfiction with a few verse interludes is that it sends two suspect messages to poets: first, verse—that is, writing in metered lines instead of prose paragraphs—is on its way out; second, and more specifically, if you want to write about issues of special cultural urgency (race, gender, sexuality) prose is the way to go. Especially for young writers who do not share Rankine’s mastery, but are imbued with the same activist spirit, it seems to say: if you must write in lines and stanzas, do it in such a way that you avoid any semblance of metrics, rhyme, exalted diction, or vibrant, connotative language. Go listen to John Oliver rant about your favorite political issue, rewrite it making the language less British, and you will have a prose poem worth giving an award, or at least our much coveted attention.

There are many historical trends to be debated and objections to be made at this juncture. I’ll limit myself to three anticipated responses. First, if a collection of prose poems happens to be the best of the year, that’s due to verse having failed to live up to its potential. It’s not Rankine’s fault that no one wrote verse as stunning and immediate as her prose. Very true. But this impotence of verse is no accident—it is attributable to the rise of free verse and can be traced through the success of Eliot, Plath, and Ashbery to the contemporary scene where free verse is default, and traditional forms (both western and non-western) a curiosity. All this has been said before by Dana Gioia in his two excellent collections of critical essays (Graywolf 1992, 2004) and I direct the reader to them. My worry, in ceding the field to prose poetry, is that it will seem a natural progression of poetry and not a direct result of the intentional and not irreversible banishing of prosody—the study of English metrics and traditional forms—from contemporary writing.

Second, it could be countered that ours is simply not an age of verse, and that poets like Annie Dillard and Claudia Rankine who trade verse for prose are simply seeing the sign of the times. But I remember the examples of Pope and Wheatley, who lived in the first the great age of modern prose and still wrote powerful verse of immediate interest and lasting cultural import that holds its own among the prose of their contemporaries Voltaire, Jefferson, Johnson, and Wollstonecraft. If Phillis Wheatley had rejected poetry for the lure of the essay, American poetry in general and African-American poetry in particular would be the poorer for it.

Third, it could be said that those who intentionally reject western prosody are right to do so from a philosophical standpoint. Is not my beloved iambic pentameter the favored poetic form of white, male, western, colonial power? Should it not be intentionally rejected as part of the great cultural liberation we now find ourselves in? I hesitate to say so. I remember that pentameter is as much Bradstreet’s as Milton’s and as much Wheatley’s as Pope’s. The feminist skeptic Dickinson did more with iambs than her Puritan detractors ever did. Sylvia Plath, that great rejecter of the fascism of male hegemony arguably did her most powerful work in pentameter. No, we cannot reject even pentameter as hopelessly entangled in the old oppressions. We would lose the best works of those poets who led the fight against the oppressors. We should, however, refresh our prosody with new forms, forms that take the metrical and mathematical nature of language seriously—I would point here to the example of the protest poets of Iran who have recently gained attention in the west for their Landay poems, which play with strict syllable patterns. Personally I have found my poetry—especially at the level of line-crafting—aided by studying and imitating the Korean sijo form.

In closing I return to Milton. Milton’s political hero Oliver Cromwell seems to me a cruel bully, and Milton’s Arian-tinged theology a hollow outlook. But through the power of Milton’s pentameter they become to me matters of import. If I reject them, it is because I have seen the heights they can reach in song, and have, even then, held my ground. So let it be, again, with the matters we hold dear—let them have their chance in metered song, before they join the earth-bound piles of prose. If they’re really worth our time, they’re worth our craft of verse.